Lee Abrams left Tribune amid a serious uproar less than three years ago, but the radio entrepreneur is back—with a project that is perhaps the most ambitious undertaking thus far in a career that includes major roles in the creation of both Radio Disney and XM Radio. He wants to remake the news.
XM, Abrams said, "wasn't really the place to reinvent news and information," and nor was Tribune. "They went through all the bankruptcy and craziness" while he was there, he said frankly. "We thought we'd do it without layers and layers of history and conference rooms full of people who were going to question it."
So he and his partner Steve Saslow have formed a newsroom staffed by more than 100 folks from local television stations around the country and created a user interface that can be accessed online, on mobile and on tablets. They're calling the new product TouchVision (last year, when it was still being roughed out, the venture was called Think Televisual), and they're hoping to expand to television as well. They're pitching not MSOs but stations with spare spectrum on their digital subchannel frequencies—a cheap but ever-more-popular piece of broadcast real estate.
For those who've spent a while watching television news, a question arises: Why bother reinventing it at all? Why not let it migrate onto the Web? Abrams is quick with an answer: "You could drive a truck through the potential for news among 18-44s," he said. "You have TMZ, and it's great, and then you have Fox News and so forth and that's great, too—very successful. There's a new opportunity to reach the mainstream Americans who find TMZ amusing but kind of dumb, and the [older-skewing] stuff kind of boring. We're looking for a way to find an audience for whom there's nothing really directly servicing their needs."
Saslow is a less-public figure than Abrams—his resume includes stints as CEO of the Verance Corporation, a company that developed the watermarking software used in all Blu-Ray players, and concert promoter SFX Entertainment. Abrams and Saslow share the ClearChannel connection—the radio behemoth bought SFX in 2000, and the company's former head Randy Michaels worked closely with Abrams at Tribune. The new venture, though, is something else entirely.
TouchVision does not look like any news on television. That's no guarantor of its success, obviously, but it's certainly new. On a screen filled with news stories for the viewer to select, a main window plays a story that looks a lot like this: a series of still photos and raw news footage licensed from Getty, the AP, CNN, Reuters and sundry others, with an announcer reading the story and a soundtrack that varies from regional ethnic music to old-fashioned American rock 'n' roll. Abrams calls them "news movies," and there's not a doubt in his mind that they're what young news watchers would rather be seeing. "We're a rock 'n' roll culture, not an old media culture," he said.
And speaking of rock 'n' roll culture, what about Abrams' unfavorable publicity during the fall of the Tribune company? Has that come up as his new company looks for partners? "I haven't had anyone ask any questions about it or give me pushback in years now," Abrams said. "It was all very dramatic, and it wasn't just me. But I certainly got the most press out of it. The first couple of months it was like, 'Wow, what happened?' It was a lot of drama."
The new business continues to ramp up. The group has an ad sales team ready to go as the network preps to launch. It's a risky venture, and it's not a cheap one—the enormous newsroom is based in Chicago while the ad sales staff is based in New York. The company is working with the same problem that has plagued advertising execs for years—how to monetize mobile and tablet viewing, which is where a lot of unmonetized viewing is currently happening—and Saslow has brought in outside experts including the Engagement Marketing Group's Robert DeSena to help create a metric.
This is not the favored strategy of most advertisers. When Google announced at its brandcast last year that it would be both measuring and guaranteeing on the same metrics, buyers stayed away in droves (Google learned to roll with third-party metrics and everybody went home happy, eventually). But the problem with mobile and tablet measurement is that there is no accepted third-party standard. Nielsen's cross-platform product is in its infancy, and comScore's lags behind even that.
For that reason, said the 4A's Mike Donahue, advertisers may be willing to spot TouchVision an ad hoc measurement system so long as it's clear that the company has an under-reached demographic in its sights. "The millennial audience is critical, and they're very hard to reach," Donahue says. "It's always a challenge, but for me, the most important thing is that when an agency has an opportunity in a medium which is clearly interesting to a subset of audience in that medium, but the content isn't available in that medium, they're usually forgiving when it comes to the metrics."
It remains to be seen whether millennials will tune in to the network, but it's clearly a sector where there's more than one player hoping to sell news. Participant Media's Pivot network launched this upfront season, and as TV ages, more and more companies are likely to try this sort of thing. News has the oldest dollar demo on television—25-54 year-olds—so it makes sense that change is coming to that medium first.
Will it be the right change, though? And will it be enough? Abrams is betting a great deal of money that it will.